Published: July 31, 2013
When watching Jaleel Awini throw footballs at Air Force practices, it's always tempting to pull him aside and ask a question that would go something like this:
"Um, do you understand you're playing for a school that barely believes in passing?"
Awini, a sophomore, is 6-foot-2, smooth and confident in the pocket. He throws football fastballs that would make Goose Gossage proud.
"He has a cannon of an arm," said a fellow Air Force player who has watched Awini with intense interest. "The kid has nothing but a cannon."
The man who offers those heartfelt compliments of Awini's arm strength?
Kale Pearson, Awini's prime competitor for the starting QB job.
Air Force practice opens Thursday with the promise of the most riveting of football dramas. A genuine quarterback battle will unwind during August as two of the top recruits of the Troy Calhoun era struggle to emerge as the victor.
This will be, no doubt, a blast to watch. Pearson, a junior, is the more traditional Air Force quarterback, clearly a run-first athlete, and he appears to have a slight lead in the QB race. This makes sense. He offered Air Force fans a glimpse of his speed, courage, determination and ability to fly last season when he soared to a game-winning touchdown on a miserable October night in Laramie, Wyo.
If Pearson earns the starting job, he could rush for 1,000 yards. At least. If Awini wins the job, Calhoun might be inspired to open up his playbook to include - gasp! - more passes.
Yet there is also peril in this competition. Quarterback struggles can create rifts on a team, diminish its power, turn victories into losses.
The Bubby Brister-Brian Griese QB controversy doomed the 1999 Broncos, who were seeking a third straight Super Bowl title. Those Broncos tumbled from the top of the NFL to a losing record. The Jake Plummer-Jay Cutler QB controversy devastated the 2006 Broncos.
Fisher DeBerry thrived through a long list of quarterback struggles during his 23 seasons as coach of the Falcons. He saw Brian Knorr vs. Bart Weiss and a kid named Troy Calhoun vs. Dee Dowis and several other QB struggles. DeBerry won 169 games as Air Force's head coach.
"The most important thing is, who is your best leader?" DeBerry said last week from South Carolina. "You've got to take a look at their skills, but the questions are, who does the team respond to the best? Which player takes command and says, 'Hey, follow me.'?
"It's more than throwing and running. As a quarterback, you've got to be able to take risks, got to do the little things."
DeBerry chuckled when he heard about the QB situation at Air Force. He could tell this struggle to find the offense's leader will be a close one, filled with twists and turns.
He's not worried this battle will destroy the Falcons. DeBerry is close to Calhoun. They talk and text often. He believes his former player will turn this competition into a plus.
"It's healthy," DeBerry said.
The QB struggle is, by its nature, high profile. Fans, coaches, reporters and other players will be watching closely. If handled correctly, DeBerry said, this struggle can unite a team. The rest of the players will see if the competition has been handled fairly. Players will see diligent labor and preparation translate into starting positions.
Awini, the man with Air Force's best arm, and Pearson, who owns one of the fastest pair of legs, begin their battle for QB supremacy Thursday in the shadow of the foothills.
Don't go anywhere. This is going to be fun to watch.